Stalled work on the new lock for Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga is expected to ultimately get a boost after a normally divided U.S. House on Wednesday gave a whopping bipartisan approval to a major water infrastructure bill.
U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Tenn., hailed the measure as a "step in the right direction" toward restarting construction on the new lock that ran out of funding in September.
The Water Resources Reform and Development Act, which is the first authorization measure of its type in six years, passed on a 417-3 vote. Senators in the spring passed their own version and the differences are expected to be hammered out in a conference committee.
Rep. Tom Graves, R-Ga., called House passage a "victory for Georgia families," saying it will benefit a project to make the Port of Savannah more usable by larger ships.
The bill drew bipartisan support as Republicans like Fleischmann and Graves ignored opposition from some conservative groups. Democrats largely held their nose over provisions accelerating environmental reviews of projects, which some environmental groups opposed.
Members of both parties called it a "jobs bill" that will help boost the nation's water infrastructure, including dams, ports and flood protection. The bill authorizes projects but money will have to be appropriated later.
Eight of Tennessee's nine congressmen, six Republicans and two Democrats, voted yes on the bill. But Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn., was recorded as not voting. All 14 Georgia members voted in favor.
Earlier, Fleischmann put a spotlight on the local lock in a floor speech.
"I represent a city, Chattanooga, Tenn. We've all heard of the Chattanooga Choo Choo but there's another place called the Chickamauga lock in Chattanooga.
"This bill basically does something that I've been working on so hard since I've been in Congress," Fleischmann said. "It's a step in the right direction to finally work toward funding the Chickamauga lock."
The congressman says that is because the measure, House Resolution 3080, makes a key change to the Inland Waterways Trust Fund, which gets its money from fuel taxes paid by commercial water users like barge operators nationwide.
Fleischmann and others believe the change will benefit the Chickamauga lock project.
Currently, the trust fund provides 50 percent of the money for projects like locks with the federal government paying the remaining 50 percent.
"What it [bill] does basically is it reforms the Inland Waterways Trust Fund," Fleischmann said. "This is a trust fund right now that is fundamentally broken. Why? because what it does, it sends all the money to one particular lock project and starves out all the other lock projects in the system, including Chickamauga lock."
The project he referenced is the Olmsted Dam and locks on the Ohio River, which has effectively dammed up funding for other projects.
In order to free up trust fund money for other projects, the House bill boosts the federal share for Olmstead from 50 to 75 percent.
A similar bill passed by the Senate earlier this year goes even further, making the Olmstead project entirely federally funded.
The water infrastructure bill is the first such legislation to pass the House since 2007. Heritage Action for America and several other conservative groups, which backed the bitter partisan budget standoff that led to a partial government shutdown earlier this month, opposed the water projects measure, saying they didn't see much reform in it.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and business groups strongly backed it and urged passage.
Rep. John Duncan, R-Tenn., a member of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, took issue with complaints that the bill lacks reform.
"This is one of the most fiscally responsible infrastructure bills that this Congress has ever seen," the Knoxville congressman told colleagues, noting he is considered one of the most fiscally conservative House members.
Saying he was "proud to support" the bill, Duncan noted that keeping the nation's water infrastructure intact makes environmental as well as economic sense. A 15-barge tow is equivalent to 150 tractor-trailer trucks on the road, he said.
Duncan said the measure also "streamlines project delivery," a reference to the bill's acceleration of environmental reviews. The provision left some environmental groups and Democrats unhappy. But that wasn't enough to stop Democrats from voting yes, too.
With polls showing voters view Congress about as favorably as they do water from a muddy runoff ditch, Republicans and Democrats alike appeared delighted to be involved in a bipartisan act they expect to be seen more favorably.
"This is how we ought to work," said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland.
Earlier this week, Cline Jones, executive director of the Tennessee River Valley Association, which includes barge and tow boat operators among its members, called getting the Olmsted project out of the way critical to Chickamauga's new lock.
Jones said freeing up the trust funds will allow them to flow to the No. 2 dam project on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' project list -- the Lower Monongahela lock and dam replacement project in Pennsylvania. That should ultimately benefit the No. 3 project, Kentucky Dam on the Tennessee River, he said.
And No. 4 on the corps list is the Chickamauga lock, he noted.
Jamie Jones, the Corps' project manager for the Chickamauga project, said work on the new lock was "temporarily suspended" in mid-September when the last appropriated money ran dry.
So far, the Corps has obligated $185 million for the project. The total cost is estimated at $705 million, he said.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550.